Early support for children is essential

Brain development in infancy is astonishing. According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a million connections are made in the brain every second in the first three years of life. The centre notes: “As early experiences shape the architecture of the developing brain, they also lay the foundations of sound mental health.”

Dr. Stella Acquarone quotes in her book ‘ Changing Destinies’ that it is essential to take into account  that two-thirds of brain development occurs within the first two years of life and any disruption to this might hinder normal brain development. Therefore the earlier we are able to diagnose, intervene and treat disruptions to normal communication, the less damage there will be to the child, the child-parent relationship, and corresponding neurological systems.

In support of this, in a recent presentation at the Atlantic Summer Institute in Prince Edward Island, Dr. Chaya Kulkarni discussed the work of the Infant Mental Health Promotion initiative at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, of which she is the director. Not only are the first three years of life key, she noted, but the mother’s emotional state and level of stress during pregnancy can affect the emotional, behavioural and cognitive outcomes of the child she is carrying.

She emphasized that relationships are foundational to achieving the tasks of childhood, and that secure attachment between the infant and the caregiver (usually the parent) is key, while isolation, indifference and neglect are traumatic. This can include constant attention given to mobile phones and computer work over that of a child. Fun, enjoyment, involvement in daily chores and variation in activities creates opiates that reinforce positive and secure attachments to parents whilst also reinforcing the capacity for cognitive attainments and positive social interactions.  

In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the traumatic mental and physical health impacts of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These are things such as physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness, household violence and poverty. Such experiences are very stressful to infants and young children, and the more ACEs they experience, the greater the impact. Such prolonged stress is toxic, and “can have a cumulative toll on an individual’s physical and mental health-for a lifetime,” the Harvard Center notes.

So obviously we need to reduce the number of ACEs, and the evidence shows that there are several key things we need to do in the early years. The focus must be on the entire family, and on reducing the level of stress within the family.

Beyond that, we need to identify parents and infants that need support in becoming caring and attentive parents and developing strong attachment and positive relationships, and where necessary we need to be able to intervene to protect vulnerable children.